I listened to an interview with Mary Oliver from 2015. Krista Tippet asked about the poem, “Wild Geese,” which resonated with the world and perhaps saved lives. Oliver wryly responded that it was an exercise in end-stopped lines. That exercise motivated her poem. Hence, something big and grand came from a technique practice.
Yet the story of this poem is richer than lines ending in periods. Oliver experienced a traumatic childhood. In her words, “It was a very dark and broken house that I came from.” She understood despair and loneliness, which she described in “Wild Geese.” She also understood beauty and freedom: “I got saved by poetry. And I got saved by the beauty of the world.”
I’ve written about my experiences volunteering in prison. During my pastoral visits, I hear heartbreaking stories. And I also see amazing growth. One man was imprisoned at 17. He’s now 24, three years left on his sentence. He’s both scared and hopeful. He’s honest and kind. He has big dreams for his life.
As a child, he experienced abuse, trauma, and neglect. During our last session, I looked him in the eyes and said: “What happened to you as a child wasn’t your fault. You deserved to be loved not abused. There’s nothing wrong with you. You’re lovable and worthy just as you are. You’ve always been lovable. You don’t need to prove it or achieve it—it’s already within you. You have goodness and light inside.”
He stared at me, eyes wide, and replied, “No one has ever said that to me before.”
Mary Oliver’s poem resonates for this same reason. It tells us something we’ve not heard before but that we long to know:
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.
We can release the striving, repenting, self-blame, and “trying to be good.” It’s no longer necessary and it’s not helpful. We can love what we love. We can feel what we feel. Each of us belongs to the family of things. No matter how lonely, scared, or sad, you belong. We’re all lovable, worthy, and enough as-is. We all have a place in this complicated, wondrous world.